"People die in fairy tales all the time." -- Cinderella Man
Once upon a time there appeared a dark and wonderful fairy tale for grown-ups about a young girl beset by monsters, both real and imaginary. Spanish director Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy) has made a dark, violent, R-rated fantasy that is as unquenchably imaginative as it is uniquely powerful. Sinister and disturbing, the spellbinding Pan's Labyrinth is also imbued with wonder and awesome beauty. It is one of the most unforgettable films of the year, and an unlikely voice for hope in a world increasingly spiraling out of control.
Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero) pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is moving them from the city to the countryside so they can live under the protection of the unborn baby's father, Capt. Vidal (Sergi López), an evil and conscience-less Spanish army officer tasked by the dictator Franco with crushing the last vestiges of insurgents in Spain’s mid-20th century civil war. Vidal has no love for his new wife or her daughter—his passion is only for the son Carmen will bear him. Sucked into this world of mayhem and madness, Ofelia loses herself in books about fairy tales.
One day, led, she believes, by a fairy into the woods, Ofelia discovers a massive stone maze. At its center, she meets a mythical faun with the head of a goat and the gnarled body of a misshapen tree trunk, who tells her that she is not a human girl at all, but a princess reborn to take her seat on the throne of a magical kingdom. To prove herself, she must accomplish three tasks. These are not arbitrary tasks or merely thoughtless beats to move the plot along. They are intricate both to the story’s and to Ofelia’s development. Each task will bring her face to face with monsters and challenge her bravery. But perhaps more importantly, they will challenge her ability to follow instructions, to understand that wrong choices can lead to tragic consequences and that a conscious—a comprehension of right and wrong—is the most powerful weapon against evil.
Ofelia is everything that her stepfather-to-be is not. An automaton of evil, Capt. Vidal is convinced that a subversive traitor is working in the camp, right beneath his nose. He begins torturing those around him in a gory attempt to ferret out the conspirator and in turn obliterate the freedom fighters hiding out in the woods. He is merciless and without remorse. Having first murdered his own conscience, he now kills arbitrarily, thinking of himself as a great military leader because he takes orders without a moment’s hesitation or questioning.
Pan’s Labyrinth glides in between these two worlds—that of the horror of totalitarian fascism and of beasts who feed on the entrails of children—so convincingly and with such a seamless, beguiling grace that the film defies you to comprehend where one ends and the other begins, or if there is any difference between them in the first place.
The film’s resolution is harrowing and tragic, yet speaks to the unconquerable power of love and sacrifice. American audiences are notorious for disliking ambiguous and unhappy endings in their films. Pan’s Labyrinth has both. Was Ofelia deluded by an overwhelming fantasy that served as an escape mechanism in the face of an all-too horrible reality, or as Hamlet stated, are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies?
Are fairy tales just a waste of time? Should children be allowed to indulge in such nonsense? Just as Ofelia’s mother asks the question in the film, so too does Del Toro anticipate the criticism of many people who see such pursuits as escapist diversions. Clearly Del Toro himself believes that myths, legends and fairy tales are necessary—imperative even—to both children and adults. He, like J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, weaves profound truths through make-believe and enchantment.
Pan’s Labyrinth speaks to the very real fact that stories can help us endure anarchy and affliction by giving us a narrative framework by which we can make sense of our tumultuous lives. By contrasting the clash of good and evil in the real world with the battles that take place in fantasy realms, Del Toro acknowledges what many of us have known since we were lulled to sleep by our parents bedside stories—fables, even dark and twisted one—offer worthwhile perspectives on disquieting realities and reveal the illuminative power of childlike faith to navigate a darkening world.